Grant Wood’s Dinner For Thresher’s hangs on our kitchen wall.
One art critic said it was Grant Wood’s version of The Last Supper… I can see that.
The latest issue of Our Iowa (regional magazine) gave a behind the scene glimpse into what it was really like in the farm wife’s kitchen when it was her turn to play host to the threshing crew….
“My mom once commented that the hardest indoor work a 1900′s farm wife could possibly imagine was cooking for a threshing crew.
The threshing crew – or “ring” as it was sometimes called – was made up of a dozen or so farmers from a neighborhood, who spent several weeks each summer going from farm to farm to help thresh each farm’s small grains like oats or wheat.
Threshing was hard work and the men on the crew had to be fed at least twice a day. This meant a farm wife and usually her children were busy as bees the day the threshing crew arrived.
For the young kids, threshing was exciting. My mother, Josephine, recalled, “When I was young, it was always a thrill to hear the whistle of the steam engine coming up the road into view.”
But for the women in charge of feeding a threshing crew, the sound of that early morning steam whistle was the onset of terror.
They were up before dawn to begin last – minute preparations for the meals they had to serve, despite working long hours for days before, getting as much prepared ahead of time as they could.
But now it was only hours unto noon dinner – and then only 4 more hours until supper.
A farm woman’s reputation as a housekeeper and cook was on the line. After all, the men streaming onto the farmstead with horses hitched to bundle racks and grain wagons would eat at a dozen other neighborhood tables during the summer.
Silently – and among each other – the men would compare the spread each cook would set before them at mealtime. So threshing promoted sort of a competition in both field and kitchen.
The women often traded help – along with cookware and tableware – with two or three neighborhood women.
The result of their teamwork was awesome. Plates piled high with fried chicken, roast beef and pork, and bowls steaming with homemade noodles, mashed potatoes, gravy and dressing were a staple at almost every threshing meal.
Two or three cooked vegetables, and maybe a bean salad, were served, along with pickles, tomatoes, radishes, and green onions fresh from the garden. the ravenous men consumed large quantities of homemade bread smothered with freshly churned butter, apple butter, jams and preserves.
Of course , the meal wasn’t complete without a variety of homemade pies and cakes. Each farm wife’s meal would vary but the overwhelming volume of food served was the same from farm to farm.
And to think that all of this food was prepared without electric or gas stoves – everything was cooked, roasted or baked with a cook stove fired by wood or coal in a stifling – hot July kitchen without the benefit of electric fans.
There was no electric mixers or refrigerators either – sometimes not even an icebox or ice. The home’s cellar or well was often the only place to keep food cool.
All pots, pans and skillets, dishes and tableware were washed by hand. To keep the threshing machine running at full tilt, the men sometimes ate in two shifts, so the dishes had to be washed before the table could be reset for the second group.
Everything was washed and the table was set yet again for a third time when the women and children finally took their turn to eat.
By early to mid-afternoon, the women had to begin preparing food again to feed the threshing crew supper, which was unpredictable to time because men trickled in whenever they were finished with their particular job. Threshing on a large farm sometime even lasted for more than one day…..
A young girl like my mother learned many practical life lessons on threshing day: how to plan, delegate and cooperate with other women in the kitchen…..
In 1916 when my mother was 12 years old, she baked all the cakes for the meals on her family’s threshing day. Eighty five years later, the praise she received from those hungry and discriminating threshers – with ruddy faces, lily – white foreheads and slicked back wet hair – still linger in her memory.
After marrying my father, Chet Curtis, in 1929, Mom was finally in charge of preparing her own threshing meal on their farm in Wapello County. The entire neighborhood – men, women and child re – observed and evaluated her performance.
“We threshed six times in that first year – for oats, wheat, beans, and clover seed three times – and we had men for dinner and supper each time.” my mother recalled.
Ironically, Mom was noted in the 1930 Census under “Occupation” as having “None”.
written by Bruce Curtis, East Lansing, Mich.
DM here …It really does come down to perspectives. How many of us would have a complete breakdown if we suddenly found ourselves without the use of our gas stove or refrigerator for any length of time….let a lone hosting a dinner for a large group.
Something to smoke in our pipes.
Time for a nap. Would love to hear your thoughts. DM